Media Critique #9

A few weeks ago I wrote a critique on an article from The Birmingham News that focused on Superintendent Craig Witherspoon. At that point, the future of Witherspoon as Birmingham’s Superintendent was very shaky. With some of The Board of Education members wanting Witherspoon to be fired, but citizens of Birmingham wanting him to stay, no one knew what would happen in the coming days.

Yesterday, a new article was published in The Birmingham News by Marie Leech. The article, titled “Birmingham schools: Witherspoon’s future a likely topic today,” discusses what the current situation is. Leech begins by setting the scene. She explains that a meeting of The Board of Education members was recently scheduled and although Witherspoon’s future was not on the agenda to be discussed, it would most likely be added. He is, after all, currently a hot topic. Weeks have gone by while board members have wavered on how to evaluate his performance and it has become the general consensus of the public for a decision to be made one way or the other. Leech includes a quote from board member Phyllis Wyne saying, “We need to let him know one way or the other. That’s the professional thing to do.”

The board called a special meeting on Good Friday at 5:00pm to discuss Witherspoon’s future, but almost half of the board members were “blindsided by the called board meeting” and two members said they wouldn’t be able to attend. A few lines down Leech pokes fun at the board members by pointing out that they canceled the special meeting two hours before it was set to begin. It’s likely that they canceled it after hearing complaints from business and civic leaders, parents and community members. Unfortunately, the board doesn’t seem to realize what people are really protesting. Citizens weren’t upset because of the special meeting; they were upset that Witherspoon might be fired.

Leech includes a quote from Randall Woodfin, founder of the grass-roots group Citizens Are Responsible for Education, saying “‘In fairness from a professional standpoint, they need to make a decision one way or the other…Of course, we hope they extend his contract. And the public needs to remind them (board members) that Dr. Witherspoon’s contract expires June 30, 2013, but theirs expires eight weeks later,” he said, referring to the next school board election.”  This is a very strong point that doesn’t appear to have been covered before. Witherspoon is not the only one that might not have a job soon. Although Leech never says so directly, it is implied that board members should watch out because if they fire Witherspoon, they will soon be jobless as well.

Leech then includes a quote from Tyrone Belcher, one of the board members. “All these folks coming out for him, they ain’t got kids in the school system. But in my community? They don’t give a damn about Witherspoon,” Belcher said. “All he’s doing is going around here — ‘academy here, IB program there.’ But there’s students everywhere.” From a reader’s perspective, this quote casts a very poor light on all of the board members. First of all, the fact that Belcher says “ain’t” is not a good reflection for someone in education, and an even worse reflection on those that are in charge of education. Also, Belcher chose to cuss in his statement. For some people this isn’t offensive, but Belcher should have been mindful that all types of people will see his statement, and many will likely be offended. This quote pushes readers, many of which happen to be voters, away from siding with Board of Education members.

At the end of the article Mayor William Bell, when talking about Witherspoon and the board, says “I think they’ll be able to work something out to be on the same page.” This sounds like a nice way to wrap up the article, but in actuality it left me very confused. Why will something be worked out? Is there proof that board members have changed their minds? If so, why aren’t there any quotes from those members? I will say, though, that Leech provided many good quotes from varying sources including direct quotes from Wyne, Woodfin, and Belcher. She also included indirect quotes from State Superintendent Tommy Bice and former federal Judge U.W. Clemon.

Overall, the article was a good “update” story on what has happened concerning Witherspoon and The Board of Education. However, in the middle of the article Leech spends way too much time discussing whether Birmingham should have charter schools or not. At the end of the day, the reader is not interested in the future of charter schools in Birmingham. What he or she wants to know is the latest news on Witherspoon. The space taken discussing charter schools would have been better used for interview quotes from additional board members. In my opinion, the end of the article was also poorly written. Leech had many great quotes and it would have been better for her to end on a powerful quote instead of one from Bell that only confused readers even further. On the whole, the article had a lot of good information but it took too long to find the information and it ended on a dull note.

The article can be found here.

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Media Critique #8

Craig Witherspoon is becoming more popular by the hour in Birmingham. The Birmingham Board of Education was expected to discuss yesterday whether or not the Superintendent should be fired. The Birmingham News editorial board wrote an article with their opinion on the situation. The editorial board believes Witherspoon should not be fired and should in fact be given an extension on his contract.

In the article, the editorial board lists many things that Witherspoon has done well. He reorganized the school system’s boated front office, lowered the school system’s legal fees, and brought in a team of Teach for America teachers. In addition, he initiated career academies, started a dropout recovery program, and started Parent University, an “idea he brought from the Charlotte, N.C., school system, where parents are taught how better to interact with their children’s schools and teachers.”

Obviously, the editorial board raved about Witherspoon and all the great things he has done in just two years. “In the two years Witherspoon has been on the job, he has shown himself a capable leader. He is not perfect. But he is easily the most capable.” However, they did mention two issues that help the other side of the argument. Witherspoon hired a director who then resigned before starting the job – all because of a past scandal. Also, Witherspoon dismissed the popular Principal Spurgeon Banyard. These two mistakes certainly didn’t gain him any friends in Birmingham.

But after all the good he has done, are those two mistakes important enough that he should be fired? The editorial board, assuming that the reader would ask that question, says, “…the reasons listed by board members to oppose him are petty: The city’s athletics program is lousy. Witherspoon is talking to the “wrong” people. A school had a textbook problem. He doesn’t communicate well.” What a horrible view of the board members! It appears that they want Witherspoon fired for their own purposes, because the reasons are definitely petty and could easily be resolved. If the board members decided to help Witherspoon with the little things, like a textbook problem, then perhaps bigger things like hiring mistakes would never occur. The editorial board obviously wants the reader to be for Witherspoon and against the board members, and listing these petty reasons drives their opinion home.

As an article, the story is very biased. Obviously, when critiquing an opinion piece the article will be slanted heavily in one direction. The editorial board did attempt to show a little bit of the other side of the story by listing a few missteps, but it’s clear from the beginning how they feel about Witherspoon. It’s also important to note that this piece is written as if The Birmingham News is stating their opinion on the matter. When a big company shares their opinion, many people that are on the fence will probably lean towards the shared opinion. This is great for the cause, but The Birmingham News has to be very careful when writing pieces that speak for the entire company, because they’re likely to face more backlash this way.

If I could change anything about this article, I would definitely include a few quotes! There wasn’t a single quote given throughout the entire article. This does make sense, though, since it’s an opinion piece. The closing sentence of the article was strong, though. Once again, the editorial board bluntly stated their opinion by saying, “For the schoolchildren of Birmingham and for the school system’s future, the Board of Education must not make this grave mistake.” Overall, I was disappointed, especially by the lack of quotes, but for an opinion piece The Birmingham News did a good job.

The news story can be found here.

Media Critique #7

I recently heard someone talking about the problems in Jefferson County and it peaked my interest, so I did a little research. John Archibald, of The Birmingham News, wrote an article earlier this morning with up-to-date information on Jefferson County. The article, titled “Dissolve Jefferson County? What’s left to dissolve?,” is a mini-debate with himself on whether the county should be dissolved or not.

In the beginning, he is a bit sarcastic about the problems and possible solutions for Jefferson County, but then he goes straight into a quote from lawyer Kenneth Klee, who says dissolution is “extremely unlikely.” Archibald states his opinion: the idea of dissolution is “all talk,” a way to put pressure on the Legislature, and a quick-fix for the time being.

Archibald moves straight from his opinion into a conversation he had with County Manager Tony Petelos. The conversation is confusing because Petelos says that he’s optimistic that dissolution can happen, and is hopeful that it will. For a minute it seems like a shocking statement, but Archibald is quick to point out their failure to communicate well. “While I was talking to Petelos about “dissolution,” Petelos was talking to me about “this solution.” It’s obvious how this mistake could be made, but it reflects very poorly on Petelos and all those involved with this important decision. If Archibald was trying to embarrass Petelos, he succeeded.

The conversation, which at first appeared to be unimportant and ‘filler’ for his story, turns out to be a key point when Archibald says, “That conversation may have been comically ill-fated, but it still summed up the county’s dilemma. When we try to talk of solutions, the meaning gets lost in translation. It dissolves into misunderstanding.” He says dissolution is not the solution because we don’t know what it would do, cost, or if it’s even possible.

He does, however, look at the issue from the other side. He points out a few positives of dissolution, including being free of the notoriety of “the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy” and putting them “at arm’s length from the baggage of [their] history.” But as soon as he finishes this short list of positives, he launches into what would be lost and how Jefferson County would appear in the future. Archibald says that, in his opinion, “a post-apocalyptic Jefferson County is desperate and divided. It is unable to perform governmental functions, and unwilling to pay for them.”

This leaves the reader right back where he or she began: with his or her own opinion. Quotes have been given from a lawyer (which was a weak quote because we don’t know how he is part of this issue) and from the County Manager (which only made Petelos look dumb), and both sides of the dissolution issue have been shown. How is the reader supposed to decide how they feel?

Archibald answers that question with his very last sentence. “That [post-apolcalyptic county] sounds strikingly like today’s Jefferson County: Maybe we ought to look into this dissolution thing after all. Desperate times, really, call for more than just desperation.”

Go big or go home, right? What a way to end his story! The entire time it was assumed by the reader that Archibald was against the dissolution of Jefferson County. In fact, he bluntly said that multiple times! But in a very sly way, he brings the reader around to see it from a totally different view. The best part is, the reader has no idea the punchline is coming, but it in fact makes complete sense! Minus the random quote from Klee, Archibald did a very impressive job.

The news article can be found here.

Media Critique Blog #6

“Alabama has a proliferation of pregnant porkers.” With a title like that, John Archibald, of The Birmingham News, was sure to get a reaction out of his readers. Add in the fact that the story is more about politics than it is about pigs, and an idea was likely to be quickly formed by many – politicians are pigs.

Archibald begins by discussing the problems we face with pigs: greed and corruption, boorish behavior, and an insatiable appetite. He says if you “give an Alabama pig an inch…it will take a pile.” For a little while the story seems boring, a simple description of pigs. But then Archibald throws the reader a curveball by comparing these pigs to senators and representatives. Out of no where, politics has been thrown into the story. If the reader is anything like myself, her or she likely went back through the description of pigs to read what Archibald was actually saying about politicians. It is at this point that Archibald either gains or loses support from readers.

For those that read on, he then writes, “It is mere chance that a wild pig’s gestation period is roughly the same length of time as a regular session of the Alabama Legislature. It is just coincidence that a wild pig can spit out eight to 10 piglets in the time it takes lawmakers to pass one decent law. This pig dilemma is about real pigs.” It’s easy to read right between the lines of his sarcasm and see that he’s actually bashing the government, but instead of coming right out and saying how he feels, he has chosen to voice his thoughts behind a story on pigs.

Archibald then shifts towards a different topic – wild pig birth control. It seems like a bit of a strange topic, but of course he relates it back to politics. He describes a little bit of what the birth control would look like for pigs, but then he slips right back into his “sarcastic voice.” He says, “I mean, here we have the government — not piggish insurance companies, of course — paying for pig contraception. And there’s not even a snort of debate about it.” Obviously, he is hinting at the fact that the government is perfectly fine with birth control for pigs – there’s barely a whisper of any argument against it! However, there have been and may always be debates on birth control for women. Archibald does a great job of pointing out a flaw in the government without ever specifically saying it himself – he simply leads the reader to the thought he wants him/her to have.

The one downfall of this story is the use of quotes. Archibald quotes Steve Ditchkoff, a professor at Auburn University, a few times, but the quotes are all related to pigs. The quotes don’t serve a purpose in bringing the government into the story, but perhaps that was Archibald’s idea – if he mainly talks about pigs, then who can be upset with him for mentioning politics? The only other quote is actually a reference to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Although this could be a good reference to tie in, it was a poor way to end the story.

John Archibald did a fantastic job of getting his thoughts across without having to bluntly state them. He used humor and sarcasm to lead the reader to his idea. The quotes weren’t great and didn’t add very much, but the story was thought-provoking and silently threw darts, if you will, at the government.

The news story can be found here.

Media Critique Blog #5

Money is always a hot topic in the news. As humans, we often compare our lives with the lives of others. Comparing how much money we make is one way we can either feel better about ourselves, or a way to feel sorry for ourselves. The Birmingham News wrote a story titled “Alabama legislators will get $1,608 raises if they don’t decline them in writing.” The title is catchy and draws readers in very quickly. After all, we’re immediately curious to hear if any legislators are declining a pay raise.

David White, the writer of this news story, begins with a short indirect quote and then goes straight into the facts. When will the pay raise happen? Who has declined it? And probably most important to the reader – how much will legislators make now?

White states that, “The automatic cost-of-living increase that would be implemented in April would push the annual pay . . . to $55,046, a raise of 3 percent.” He then says that two Birmingham legislators, Dem. Rodger Smitherman and Rep. John Rogers, said “they intend to accept the raise because of the rising costs of gasoline, lodging in Montgomery and other work-related expenses.” Rogers is quoted saying he’s simply taking the pay raise because the cost-of-living is going up, and Smitherman agrees. Smitherman mentions that he recently stopped to fill up his car and premium gasoline was $4.00.

The problem with this quote has nothing to do with White, but all to do with Smitherman. It’s likely that the general public will read that line and think, “Hey! I have to pay for gas, too, and I’m not receiving a pay raise!” Once again, White has to subtly bring the reader back into the story before they turn the page or close the browser out of annoyance.

Smith does this by continuing the story with facts about legislators who have recently declined a pay raise. He even mentions that there are many legislators in Alabama that have chosen to only be paid $30,710 a year instead of the $52,646 many other are being paid. Senator Brewbaker, a legislator being paid only $30,710 says ”It just doesn’t seem right for legislators to take COLAs, or certainly take a big pay increase, when state employees certainly aren’t getting them.” This, as Smith knows, is a great quote to include because it will be greatly supported by the general public.

There were many direct and indirect quotes from legislators in this story. Smith quotes people on both sides of the ‘fence’ and did a great job remaining unbiased in his writing. He wisely spends much of the last section of the news story throwing around the acronym COLA – bringing the reader back to the idea of the pay raise being for a cost-of-living adjustment. If the cost of living is increasing, then perhaps a 3% pay raise is not a big deal. At the end of the day, Smith grabbed the reader with a great title, provided many important facts and great quotes, and kept the audience reading a story that would often be easy to become annoyed and even angry with. This is a great piece of writing!

The news story can be found here.